There’s something exhilarating about listening to an artist becoming themselves in front of your eyes and ears. Ntjam Rosie is a musician with a unique sound that expands each time she steps into the studio, and her new album is The One — in every sense.
The singer and songwriter, who arrived in Holland from a small village in Cameroon at the age of nine, is now based in Rotterdam and has been turning heads in her adopted home country. That is happening both because of her exciting, Afro-European blend of soul, jazz, folk, gospel and world music, but also because of a striking creativity in the world of fashion that has made her into a style tastemaker. Not to mention that she is a truly independent woman, running her own record label, Gentle Daze.
Now, she is ready to unveil the fourth instalment in an increasingly distinguished album catalogue. The One is a huge creative step forward, both in terms of its confident, seductive songwriting ethic and because it marks Ntjam Rosie’s debut as a producer of her own work. Those of us who have been treated to an early listen to it can hear invigorating elements of India.Arie’s roots-fuelled R&B, Patrice Rushen’s sultry jazz, and even the vocal independence of Beyoncé, all in an atmospheric soundscape that is purely her own.
The new record follows on from (but certainly does anything but replicate) Ntjam’s third album from 2013, At The Back Of Beyond. That was warmly received both creatively and commercially, and inspired her to perform throughout Holland and through Europe. Much as she enjoyed the experience and was proud of that record, this time she wanted to go somewhere new.
“At The Back Of Beyond was an album that was a part of me, and that needed to explore my poppy side,” says Ntjam. “I’m grounded in jazz and soul, and pop. But as a songwriter, I really needed to go through that album to learn how to play the guitar, to see and hear what kind of songs I would write, and also to put the guitar on the palette — literally being able to pick the guitar up to write.”
Ever greater assurance in her playing informed the way she approached the new material on The One. “I know what I want from the guitar and the piano,” she explains, “because those are my two favourite instruments to write on, and I need the folky side of me to develop a little bit more. There are some chords that are just nicer on guitar than the piano, and that give you another kind of inspiration.
“I’ve been through a lot, like everyone else,” she says of the inspirations for the album. “For instance, in the song I’m Loved, I’m singing about the fact that I was a laughing stock once, for a lot of people, like ‘What are you wearing?’ But now, I’m in fashion magazines and they’re applauding the crazy style I have. So all of it is partially a choice, but it’s also pre-destined. Like I sing in Always On The Run, you can’t run from your destiny, but it doesn’t mean you have to be lazy. You have to make choices.”
The songs for The One were written around the time Ntjam got married, in January 2014, and was made with her regular band, and her “amazing” engineer Vincent Helbers at her side, with Martin Fondse adding strings, and guest appearances by friends and fellow artists Pink Oculus, Eric Vloeimans and Ronald Snijders. It’s a warm, inviting listen that speaks of love, both the romantic kind and a greater one.
“I’m coming home,” Ntjam laughs of her musical journey. “I went away for a nice trip, and now I’m back to the roots where I really started, with gospel. I grew up in a Christian home in Cameroon, then at the age of nine I came to Holland, and that side of me kind of stood still. I had so many questions and as a teenager, I never really did anything about them. Then from the album Elle [in 2010], I started to go back to my faith. I needed the water, you could say. My spirit was crying out to God, and I wanted to search more, but now as a grownup.”
That’s the spiritual link with an early childhood spent in the village of Sonkoe, in south Cameroon, which was little more than a collection of houses, several hours from the nearest city. “I knew that I would go somewhere very far, it was this gut feeling,” says Ntjam.” As a child, I loved Madonna, she was such a rebel. Then later, I started to really love Sade, and the whole neo-soul, R&B thing. I was a huge Erykah Badu fan, and I still like what she does.”
Relocating to Maastricht with her mother, she overcame all kinds of linguistic, social and other hurdles, having singing lessons from 14, by which time she was already writing her first song. She went on to study at the Codarts Academy, and even as a student, landed the record deal that produced the 2008 debut album Atouba.
Her graduation as a cosmopolitan, 21st century woman and musician followed, as she went on to be nominated both for Holland’s Edison Awards, twice, and the Elle Personal Style Awards; played the North Sea Jazz Festival, and gigs from Thailand to Turkey and Estonia to China.
Ntjam has already started to introduce The One during her live shows, and looks forward to touring it more in 2015. She doesn't rule out working with an outside producer in the future — especially, she suggests with a smile, if Pharrell Williams, Meshell Ndegeocello, Alicia Keys or Stevie Wonder insist.
But for the moment, the place she has arrived at will do nicely. “I’m really happy with the outcome of the album,” she says. “It was what I had in my head.” You can’t resist saying that the future is bright. The future is Rosie.
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